The Mipim international real estate exhibition welcomed thousands of visitors in 2019 but has had to scale down its plans in 2020. (Photo by Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

As lockdown regulations have spread across the globe – limiting business travel and causing large gatherings to be banned – organisers have had to pivot away from the traditional live events model in order to survive.

Such companies have had to revise their short and long-term strategies to counter the impact of Covid-19, but what does this mean for the businesses, governments and investment agencies who had relied on the opportunities that these live events provided?

Are live events dead?

The Annual Investment Meeting (AIM) is a three-day event held in Dubai. In 2019, it saw more than 16,000 visitors from 143 countries. This year’s event was supposed to take place in March, but as the global lockdown spread, so did the cloud of uncertainty over the 2020 event calendar.

After waiting until the end of June to see whether a physical event was possible, AIM director-general Walid Farghal had to make speedy decisions under pressure.

“When we saw that there was no hope to have a [physical] event, we decided to convert it to an online platform and quickly decided new dates – 20–22 October 2020,” he says.

Alongside creating a new digital version of the physical event, AIM has also created a series of webinars – more than 70 between April and August, according to Farghal. This is part of a strategy to remain connected to delegates and clients.

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“We have not stopped working,” he adds. “We are keeping engaged with our network.”

This rapid switch in strategy has rippled throughout the events industry, with the majority upping their online accessibility through digital events. Filippo Rean, real estate division director at Mipim organiser Reed Midem, agrees that being able to effectively host a digital event is now crucial.

“[Digital events] were already there in a sense before the pandemic, but Covid-19 has accelerated the trend,” he says.

An advantage of digital events is their greater accessibility, according to Farghal.

“[Digital events] make it easy for almost anyone worldwide to be included,” he says. “In the past we had many challenges with visas for people to come to Dubai. From mainland Africa and Latin America, there were also issues such as travel, budgets, etc. Now you can join us on a platform in under a minute.”

Farghal adds that AIM has worked to build a digital platform that keeps the spirit of connectivity alive.

“You can interact with the audience, exchange business cards, have your own business card wallet, take additional notes and use all of this to expand your network,” he says.

Getting physical

There does, however, remain an appetite for physical events to return, with many companies assessing ways to return to the ‘old normal’. Mipim, which had cancelled its usual four-day event in Cannes in March (it has been running since 1990 and saw 26,800 participants from 100 countries in 2019), transformed the exhibition by moving it to a new location with a scaled-down format.

Mipim created the Paris Real Estate Week, which was billed as “the first post-lockdown gathering dedicated to property, city and innovation” and ran from 14-17 September. The number of in-person attendees was reported as 1500.

Rean points out that creating an entirely new event of this nature has not been without challenges.

“The first challenge is to read the calendar and try and deduce when will be a reasonably safe time,” he says.

“The second is to guarantee the security of our participants and staff. In order to do this, we have had to work closely with authorities in France. A lot of the time the rules are not 100% clear [with regards to Covid-19 precautions], so we aim to take the more conservative view in terms of safety. Last, we need to work with clients to ensure they have the autonomy to decide whether or not to participate. Then, once they have decided to come, that they have enough time to prepare and make good use of the event.”

A role in the recovery

The events industry has been hugely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, with a large number of staff furloughed and many stimulus packages being issued by governments.

One such package includes a £10m injection from the Scottish government in a bid to keep the sector – which contributes approximately £6bn a year to Scotland’s economy, according to the event industry advisory group afloat – in the country,

Alongside this, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that foreign direct investment flows will fall by 30–40% during 2020 and 2021, which creates a highly competitive investment environment.

This is something that Farghal notes AIM is very aware of.

“It will be hard, and recovery will not be easy,” he says. “It will take time and the competition between countries will be harsh because everyone has lost a lot. Number one for us is to work with all the countries now to prepare their investment recovery package.”

Farghal believes that unity between countries and an increase in the number of events will help economies in the long run.

“All countries have to work very closely with investors to make sure they speed up the recovery of their economy,” he says. “They have to work to do their own activities and events to make sure they engage with the maximum number of investors.”

There is no doubt that the return of physical events combined with the accessibility of digital platforms will be crucial for creating collaborative spaces in which the global economy can start recover.